Light is precious in a world so dark.
It turns out the “large voice” didn’t belong to a rat, but a man.
“A mouse with red thread,” boomed the voice. “Oh yes, Gregory knows the way of mice and rats. Gregory knows. And Gregory has his own thread, marking him. See here, mouse.” And the match was held to a candle and the candle sputtered to life and Despereaux saw a rope tied around the man’s ankle. “Here is the difference between us: Gregory’s rope saves him. And your thread will be the death of you.”
This introduction doesn’t do much assuage Despereaux’s fears, but to be fair, he is still in the rat-infested dungeon.
“Who are you?” he whispered.
“The answer to that question, mouse, is Gregory. You are talking to Gregory the jailer, who has been buried here for decades, for centuries, for eons. For eternities. You are talking to Gregory the jailer, who, in the richest of ironies, is nothing but a prisoner here himself.”
“Oh,” said Despereaux. “Um, may I get down, Gregory?”
“The mouse wants to know if Gregory the jailer will let go. Listen to Gregory, mouse. You do not want to be let go. Here, in the dungeon, you are in the treacherous dark heart of the world. And if Gregory was to release you, the twistings and turnings and dead ends and false doorways of this place would swallow you for all eternity.
“Only Gregory and the rats can find their way through this maze. The rats because they know, because the way of it mirrors their own dark hearts. And Gregory because the rope is forever tied to his ankle to guide him back to the beginning. Gregory would let you go, but you would only beg him to take you up again. The rats are coming for you, you see.”
[…] “Listen,” said Gregory. “You can hear their tails dragging through the muck and filth. You can hear them filing their nails and teeth. They are coming for you. They are coming to take you apart piece by piece.”
DiCamillo does a surprisingly good job evoking the terror and darkness here. But then Despereaux explains why he can’t die in the dungeons.
“Because I’m in love. I love somebody, and it is my duty to serve her.”
“Love,” said Gregory. “Love. Hark you, I will show you the twisted results of love.” Another match was struck; the candle was lit again, and Gregory held it up so that its flame illuminated a massive, towering, teetering pile of spoons and kettles and soup bowls.
“Look on that, mouse,” said Gregory. “That is a monument to the foolishness of love.”
“Spoons. Bowls. Kettles. All of them gathered here as hard evidence of the pain of loving a living thing. The king loved the queen and the queen died; this monstrosity this junk heap is the result of love.”
As a wise android once said, what is grief but love persevering?
“I don’t understand,” said Despereaux.
“And you will not understand until you lose what you love,” said Gregory. He blew out the candle. “We will talk instead about your life. And how Gregory will save it, if you so desire.”
“Why would you save me?” Despereaux asked. “Have you saved any of the other mice?”
“Never,” said Gregory, “not one.”
“Why would you save me, then?”
“Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story. Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light.”
And because Despereaux wanted very much to live, he said, “Once upon a time . . .”
This is why I love this story so much – because it reflects what I believe to be true, that stories are “light”, both in the sense that it provides sustenance, and in the ways that they can illumine truth.
It was in that way that Despereaux was saved.
Reader, if you don’t mind, that is where we will leave our small mouse for now: in the dark of the dungeon, in the hand of an old jailer, telling a story to save himself.
It is time for us to turn our attention elsewhere, time for us, reader, to speak of rats, and of one rat in particular.
Next time: Chiaroscuro…